EXETER – Candidates for the Exeter Town Council are getting ready for the General Election in November, with an almost equal number of Democrats, Republicans and Independents throwing their hats in the ring.
Along with a slate of challengers, all five of the current members of the council have declared their candidacies for reelection. Each of the current members were asked about their highlights over the previous term, as well as their priorities going forward, if reelected.
Profiles of the remaining candidates for the Exeter Town Council will appear in next week’s North Kingstown Standard Times, including newcomers Olivia DeFrancesco (D), Michael Lefebvre (R) and Andrew Patty (I), as well as former town councilors Francis Maher (R) and Raymond Morrissey (I). (Morrissey and Maher both lost their reelection campaigns in 2018.)
The incumbent candidates’ responses below appear in alphabetical order.
Candidate Manny Andrews, a Democrat and current member of the town council, was first elected in 2018. During that campaign, Andrews said that he, Frank DiGregorio (I) and Cal Ellis (D) ran on a platform that would “overturn the terrible and unfair” solar ordinance that was passed by the previous council. The ordinance, which was written by the company Green Development, was eventually overturned in 2019 by the newly elected council.
“That prior ordinance was tailored for and written by the lawyers for a major solar developer,” Andrews said. “The ordinance was not in the best interests of the town and was only railroaded in by the prior council to make the developer millions of dollars.”
Several lawsuits were filed in connection with the overturning of the ordinance, though Andrews said that three out of the four were won by the town, with the fourth yet to be decided.
“Ordinances should be drafted by a municipality–not by lawyers for a developer who stands to make millions,” he added. “I will continue to fight for the rights of all Exeter residents concerning renewable energy–not just a select few hand picked by a developer.”
As the public safety liaison for the council, Andrews said he spearheaded two important measures.
First, Andrews sponsored an ordinance to abandon and then close a portion of Stony Lane, per the request of the district fire chief, Scott Gavitt.
“That portion was impassable to motorists and was being used primarily as a ‘party spot’ for underage kids who would gather there to drink and socialize,” he said.
He said Gavitt was concerned about motorists getting stuck on flooded portions of the road or that a bonfire could rage out of control.
Second, Andrews sponsored an ordinance that would allow the volunteer firefighters for Exeter to receive a greater tax exemption, if they were residents.
“The old ordinance allowed for a $50,000 exemption, the one recently passed allows for a $100,000 tax exemption,” Andrews said. “Chief Gavitt testified that it is difficult to get volunteers and that this measure would encourage more people to volunteer.”
Andrews said volunteer responders had to be “adequately taken care of.” He added that the additional tax exemption did not adversely impact the town’s tax base.
Another highlight from his first term of the council was forming a task force to look into the feasibility of establishing an Exeter Police Department. Exeter is currently the only municipality in Rhode Island without its own police department, relying instead on coverage from state police.
“As the only municipality in the state without its own police force, I felt it imperative to at least look into the feasibility of creating one,” he said.
And while the task force was suspended in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and protests that arose after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Andrews said that, if reelected, he expects to renew the task force.
Andrews also cited the committee he created to recreate the town’s website.
“Exeter’s website did little to inspire anyone who was thinking of moving to Exeter or coming here to start a business,” he said. “With the formation of the Exeter Economic Development Task Force, it was important to create a website that would bring Exeter into the present. With the bid recently awarded, we hope to have the new website up and running in a few months. It may seem like a small step, but it’s an important one for Exeter’s future.”
Robert “Mike” Conn
Robert “Mike” Conn, a Democrat who was elected to the council in 2018, did not return requests for an interview.
Current member of the council, Frank DiGregorio, an Independent, was first elected in 2018, and is running for reelection.
Highlights of his first term included “implementing policies that promote Exeter’s survival as a rural community,” he said.
DiGregorio cited the overturning of the Green Development solar ordinance and implementation of a new ordinance, called Solar #9, that provided a “more balanced and equitable regulation of solar facilities that conform to the comprehensive plan and protect Exeter as a rural community.”
Other accomplishments related to the solar ordinance include a Rhode Island Superior Court decision supporting Exeter’s moratorium for large scale solar facilities in residential zones, and another Superior Court decision supporting the Exeter Planning Board’s position that Green Development’s large-scale solar applications were not vetted. Additionally, the Superior Court found that Green Development’s “personal accusations” against DiGregorio and town planner Ashley Sweet of being biased “against solar development” as false.
Furthermore, DiGregorio pointed out that the recently approved FY21 town budget resulted in a reduction in the tax rate.
Another accomplishment included the Supreme Court’s recent decision regarding the state’s proposed office building at the Browning Mill Pond site, which ruled that the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) must comply with local jurisdiction for review. DEM proposed to construct a building near Browning Mill Pond, along the dividing lines of Exeter and Richmond, however the Supreme Court ruled that the state’s plans were never reviewed under local procedures.
“This decision has statewide significance because it sets a precedent that applies to all cities and towns with Home Rule Charters,” he said.
DiGregorio also said that the resolution approved by the council regarding tax exemptions for volunteer firefighters and rescue personnel would “increase volunteerism, recruitment, and retention of volunteers.” The resolution was passed by the General Assembly and is on this week’s council agenda.
However, DiGregorio said there was still work to do to ensure the town’s rural character, with development pressures coming from two sources.
“Exeter is a rural community with large tracts of open and forested land that are attractive to large scale solar developers,” he said. “In order to preserve Exeter as a rural community the [Office of Energy Resources] must create a more balanced and equitable renewable energy policy that incorporates both small scale residential solar systems and large utility scale solar facilities that are appropriately located and regulated.”
He also said that there were development pressures on Ten Rod Road, including the Preserve at Rolling Greens on the Exeter/North Kingstown line.
If reelected, DiGregorio said he would work with current fellow councilors Cal Ellis, Mike Conn and Manny Andrews, as well as challenger Olivia DeFrancesco, to continue to oppose these development pressures by creating a Ten Rod Road Scenic Overlay District.
He also said he would work to “promote cooperation and coordination with adjacent towns in pursuit of maintaining our towns as rural communities,” while also continuing to pursue greater incentives to implement a “more balanced and equitable renewable energy policy.” DiGregorio added that he would begin with reinstating the Residential Renewable Energy System Tax Credit and amending it to remove the tax credit carryover restriction.
Cal Ellis, a Democrat and current president of the Exeter Town Council, is also running for reelection. Ellis has been on the council for several terms, and was named president in 2018 after receiving the most votes out of all candidates.
Since becoming president, he said the most significant challenge he’s faced has been the difficulties posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and he has since been working with Exeter’s environmental management director and town clerk to “protect both residents and staff,” while also issuing several emergency declarations.
Ellis said he has also chaired many council meetings over the Zoom platform, allowing essential business to be conducted, while also supporting the public works director, the town hall and library staffs to modify the “ways they serve Exeter.”
Furthermore, Ellis said that, over his last term, he has supported the town’s “competent” planning board by “leading the council in the adoption of modified regulations that provide for the environmentally sensitive siting of utility scale solar initiatives.”
“The need for these regulations became evident by the circumstances surrounding recent attempts by developers to ignore planning board recommendations,” Ellis said.
Ellis cited the overturned Green Ordinance, and implementation of Solar #9, as another particular highlight.
He also pointed to the recent Rhode Island Supreme Court ruling in favor of the Towns of Exeter and Richmond regarding the state’s plans to construct a building near Browning Mill Pond.
“[T]here are significant implications for future land use by the state when the Rhode Island Supreme Court decision stopped the Browning Mill project because Exeter had not been part of the planning process,” he said.
He added that the “recent annual exemplary audits of Exeter’s finances illustrate the council’s appropriate fiduciary management.”
Going forward, Ellis said that council’s immediate challenge would be to continue to “provide for appropriate land use developments.” He also said that the town would have to engage the services of a new town planner, as Ashley Sweet, the current planner, has accepted full-time employment elsewhere. Ellis thanked Sweet for her contributions, calling her an “exemplary” employee.
“Exeter’s planning board will continue to require the guidance and recommendations of an experienced planner, as plans for many proposed projects submitted for approval require considerable due diligence,” he said.
Ellis also said the town would have to look into revising ordinances to “address needs and issues as they arise,” while enforcing regulations that keep Exeter a rural community, which remains a “constant challenge for our small-scale governing structure.”
“Efforts to encourage an expanded commercial tax base require some adjusted zoning regulations, a real challenge for an essentially rural residential community,” he added.
He urged Exeter voters to elect all the Democrats who appear on the ballot, including himself.
“We will work for you to address the needs of our town with thoughtful consideration and courage of conviction to serve the public’s interest,” he said. “We are fortunate to have hard-working employees who deserve the council’s support.”
“Of great importance to assure that good government continues is the active participation of many,” he added. “I continue to encourage residents who share my concerns about Exeter’s present and future to consider participation in municipal affairs.”
He went on to say that residents should contemplate serving on the town’s boards and commissions, adding that it takes a village–“good people plus good ideas”–for good governance to continue.
Current member of the town council, Dan Patterson, a Republican, highlighted several accomplishments over his most recent term.
Patterson cited the recent Rhode Island Supreme Court ruling in favor of the Towns of Exeter and Richmond regarding the state’s plans to construct a building near Browning Mill Pond.
“Probably one of the best accomplishments has been the court ruling involving [the Department of Environmental Management] and Browning Mill Pond,” Patterson said. “Being in the construction industry my entire life it just blew me away that the state entity charged
with regulating and protecting the environment just walks in and proceeds to go forth in building a huge building with no notification to either Richmond or Exeter.”
Patterson said the case set a precedent for the State of Rhode Island, which will now have to submit similar projects for local review.
“This case now sets precedent for the entire state,” he added. “The State of Rhode Island now must go through the same process a private individual has to when they propose any type of land development.”
Now running for reelection, Patterson said he would address the “ballooning” Exeter-West Greenwich school district costs, referencing the recently rejected budget referendum.
On July 30, “taxpayers in Exeter and West Greenwich” demonstrated that they were unhappy with the school budget as it was presented, Patterson said, which resulted in the FY21 budget for the school district being level-funded to last year’s number.
He also said he would focus on increasing Exeter’s payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) revenue from the state.
“This is money the state can reimburse cities and towns for property the state owns,” he said. “The State of Rhode Island owns 28 percent of the land in Exeter.”
Patterson said that, over the last three years, he and former councilor Frank Maher have gotten legislation introduced at the State House and spent “countless hours” both in testimony and speaking to legislators, trying to get the roughly $300,000 owed to the town in PILOT funds.
In terms of how he would address these issues, Patterson said that he has been working with Exeter’s town treasurer and West Greenwich’s town manager to discuss the continued cuts in state aid to education.
“We’ve agreed that we need to band together and fix this problem at the state level,” he said.
He added that, if reelected, he would continue fighting at the State House for the PILOT funding “Exeter is owed.”
The General Election will take place on Nov. 3.